Robert Jeffress

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

The liberal reporter and the conservative pastor: Inside Texas Monthly's big story on 'Trump's Apostle'

Social media went nuts this week — overwhelmingly positive nuts — over the official trailer for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a film starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers that will hit theaters just in time for Thanksgiving.

As Esquire notes, “The film is based on a profile of Mr. Rogers that journalist Tom Junod wrote for Esquire in 1998. In the film, Matthew Rhys plays a fictionalized version of the writer, embarking upon the profile of the kids television icon with initial reluctance before forging a friendship with his subject, the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.”

Hmmmm, a movie about the relationship that develops between a journalist and his subject.

Perhaps this formula could work for a future movie about Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas and a leading evangelical adviser to President Donald Trump.

Except that — when Hollywood tells Jeffress’ story — he’s not likely to be portrayed as “the true guru of pretty much everything that’s good in the world.” Instead, think Dick Cheney in “Vice.”

The basis for the Jeffress screenplay? The big screen could do worse than Texas Monthly’s long August cover story on “Trump’s Apostle.”

Writer Michael J. Mooney sets the scene this way:

Here’s Robert Jeffress, talking to the hundreds of thousands of people watching conservative cable news on a typical Friday evening, and he’s defending President Donald Trump against the latest array of accusations in the news this week. And he isn’t simply defending Trump—he’s defending him with one carefully crafted Bible-wrapped barb after another, and with more passion, more preparation, more devotion than anyone else on television.

As Lou Dobbs finishes his opening remarks, Jeffress laughs and nods. It’s early January, about two weeks into what will prove to be the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are missing paychecks, worrying about mortgages, car payments, utility bills. Some have started going to food banks. But Dobbs waves his hand up and down and tells Jeffress that he hasn’t heard anyone—“literally no one!”—say they miss the government. The jowly host revels in Trump’s threats that the shutdown could continue “for months, if not years,” if that’s what it takes to get more wall built on America’s border with Mexico.

Jeffress, speaking from a remote studio in downtown Dallas, agrees completely. “Well, he’s doing exactly the right thing in keeping this government shut down until he gets that wall,” he says.

Jeffress is the senior pastor at First Baptist Dallas, a 13,000-member megachurch that’s one of the most influential in the country, but he’s known best for appearances like this one: he’s often on Fox & Friends or Hannity or any number of sound-bitey segments on Fox News or Fox Business. His own religious show airs six days a week on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He has a daily radio program too, broadcast on more than nine hundred Christian stations across the country, though it’s TV he loves best. Dobbs invites Jeffress onto his show nearly every week.

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Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter

Is it controversial to pray for the president of the United States?

Not really. Anyone who knows anything about religious life in America knows that, week after week, people in a wide variety of religious congregations pray for the president (and the nation’s leaders in general) in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes these prayers are short, inserted in a longer litany of concerns (as in the Orthodox Christian parish I attend) and sometimes they are longer and more specific.

Here is a special-use prayer drawn from the world of liturgical mainline Protestantism (The Book of Common Prayer used in the Episcopal Church):

For the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Next question: Is it controversial to pray for President Donald Trump?

Apparently so. It appears that this answer is linked to another question that, for millions of Americans (including many journalists) remains controversial: Should Trump be recognized, in just about any way, as the president of the United States?

The world of Twitter journalism just had a fascinating firestorm about these questions — racing from a news report at The Hill all the way to a calm essay by Emma Green at The Atlantic, with a variety of comments by chattering-class voices in between. Let’s start with the politically charged basics, at The Hill: “Pastor defends prayer for Trump, says aim was not to endorse policies.” This event took place at one of the most high-profile evangelical megachurches near the D.C. Beltway.

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RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

Let’s have a short religion-beat test.

When a story is built on media contacts with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists, you are really with what part of the cultural and doctrinal part of the marketplace of American religion?

(Cue the think music)

I see that hand on a religion-news desk! These are outspoken churches on the Religious Left. The United Church of Christ is the elite flock that was home to President Barack Obama.

Now, would you be surprised to find out, on cultural issues, group’s such as the National Council of Churches, the National Council of Jewish Women and Muslim networks linked to the pink-hat Women’s March hail from the same basic zip code, in terms of moral, social and religious issues?

Now, what else do these groups have in common? Well, they are all, to be blunt, they are all tiny, in terms of the size of their flocks. However, they have lots of connections in the media-rich Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Odds are, when you see headlines that say “Religious groups” gather to protest this, that or the other, you are talking about these groups, often accompanied by progressive Catholic nuns dressed in pant suits.

What’s my point? Well, it is not that reporters should avoid covering them. GetReligion has been calling for increased coverage of the Religious Left — especially on religious issues, not just political issues — since we went online in 2004.

No, liberal believers matter. However, experienced reporters know that these groups are small and that portraying them as diverse, influential groups that represent mainline Christianity is, well, just about as fair as saying First Baptist Church, Dallas, and Liberty University are perfect voices for all of American evangelicalism.

That brings us to a very normal Religion News Service story with this headline: “After Senate clash, Kavanaugh nomination an occasion for prayer.” The overture:

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Intrigue about Bible given to Trump: Southern Baptist Convention president says he didn't sign it

Intrigue about Bible given to Trump: Southern Baptist Convention president says he didn't sign it

One of the interesting developments this week at that White House dinner for evangelical leaders was Paula White's presentation of a Bible to President Donald Trump.

White told the president that the Bible was signed by "over a hundred Christians."

Given that the state-like dinner included about 100 evangelical leaders, many took White's statement to mean that the people in the room had endorsed the message written in the Bible.

That message, according to a White House transcript: 

It says: “First Lady and President, you are in our prayers always.  Thank you for your courageous and bold stand for religious liberty, and for your timeless service to all Americans.  We appreciate the price that you have paid to walk in the high calling.  History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.”

But at least one prominent evangelical at the dinner — Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear — stressed that he didn't sign the Bible, as noted by Birmingham News religion writer Greg Garrison.

Greear's attendance at the dinner earlier drew criticism from religion writer Jonathan Merritt:

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And journalists yawned: Trump hosts state-like White House dinner for 100 evangelical leaders

And journalists yawned: Trump hosts state-like White House dinner for 100 evangelical leaders

President Donald Trump hosted a "huge state-like dinner" — as the Christian Broadcasting Network described it — for 100 evangelical leaders invited to the White House on Monday night.

What, you didn't hear about it?

Apparently, the event was not considered particularly newsworthy by major news organizations — which is surprising to me given how often Trump's evangelical supporters make it into headlines. (Hey, did you know that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for the brash billionaire?)

Is what the president of the United States says to some of his strongest and most influential supporters not worthy of prominent ink? 

When I looked this morning, I saw mainly stories from conservative media, from Breitbart to the Washington Times.

The Washington Times characterized the dinner this way:

President Trump hosted a dinner of Evangelical leaders at the White House Monday night and told them that he has delivered “just about everything I promised” on policies of religious liberty and defense of life.

“The support you’ve given me has been incredible,” Mr. Trump told the group. “But I really don’t feel guilty because I have given you a lot back, just about everything I promised.”

Among those attending the event were the Rev. Franklin Graham, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Pastor Paula White, a prominent spiritual adviser to the president.

Mr. Trump said under his administration, “the attacks on the communities of faith are over.” He cited actions to defend the religious conscience of health-care workers, teachers, students and religious employers; executive branch guidance on protecting religious liberty, and proposed regulations to bar taxpayer money from subsidizing abortion.

“Unlike some before us, we are protecting your religious liberty,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re standing for religious believers, because we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of American life. And we know that freedom is a gift from our Creator.”

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Hey First Baptist Dallas: Your pastor's a real dolt, but your church isn't all that terrible, paper says

Hey First Baptist Dallas: Your pastor's a real dolt, but your church isn't all that terrible, paper says

The Dallas Morning News is no fan of Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas.

Or to be more precise, the newspaper's Metro columnists are no fans of Jeffress, the Southern Baptist megachurch leader best known as one of President Donald Trump's key evangelical defenders.

But given that the paper tends to cover Jeffress in the form of opinionated columns, it's frequently difficult to make much distinction between the paper itself and its columnists.

For those interested in impartial news coverage, that's a problem. We at GetReligion, of course, advocate for clearly marking news and opinion content so that readers know which is which. The Dallas Morning News does a reasonable job of that, running columnists' photos with their pieces as opposed to using normal bylines.

However, what if all the coverage a paper ever provides about a key public figure comes in the form of opinion — the kind of opinion (read: metro column) run on news pages beside regular news stories? In that case, couldn't a reader reasonably ask if the paper really offers impartial coverage of that person? I'll explain more in a moment.

First, some key background: In 2016, we noted it here at GetReligion when Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonksy declared that "Robert Jeffress belongs in Dallas' past, not our future." At the same time, Wilonsky was doing regular news reporting on Jeffress, which seemed to be a conflict. Later that same year, we pointed it out when the Dallas paper couldn't even get the books of the Bible right when quoting Jeffress.

Now, First Baptist Dallas is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Given what a major player Jeffress and that church have become on the national stage, one might expect coverage by the Dallas paper. And indeed, the paper had a big piece on its Metro section cover. But it wasn't a news story. It was a column by Sharon Grigsby.

In fact, it was the most positive story I've read about First Baptist in the Dallas Morning News (feel free to send me links if I've missed something).

The headline sings the church's praises:

The light still shines from First Baptist Dallas

But the subhead makes it clear the writer doesn't like Jeffress' brand of politics:

Church's value speaks louder than pastor's political clamor

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Looking back at US Jerusalem embassy and Gaza bloodshed: A story in which everyone plays everyone

Looking back at US Jerusalem embassy and Gaza bloodshed: A story in which everyone plays everyone

The word that keeps coming to mind as I attempt to wrap my head around last week’s deadly violence on the Israeli-Gaza border and the formal opening of the American embassy building in Jerusalem is, “played.”

That’s played as in “being played.”

Palestinians were played by Hamas, the radical Sunni Muslim group that runs Gaza with minimal concern for those it rules. Israelis were played by their prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, whose political staying power is rooted in Israeli Jewish fears that their Arab and Iranian enemies are circling for a kill.

Then there’s President Donald Trump, who played his right-wing evangelical Christian base — allowing two of its prominent leaders to play Judaism and Jews at the embassy opening by reducing them to props — and disposable ones at that — in their eschatological vision. (I’ll say considerably more on this below.)

In short, it was a devilish display of the worst kind of cynicism imaginable, the sort that gets people killed in support of someone else’s political or religious agendas.

By now, GetReligion readers are surely familiar with the details of what happened -- the deaths of dozens of Palestinians, the presence of the Revs. Robert Jeffress and John C. Hagee at the embassy opening, the opprobrium directed at Israel by its global critics, the arguments by its supporters that Israel acted only in self-defense.

None of it was surprising, and most of it mirroring the usual reactions coming from the usual suspects -- all of it amplified by the Internet echo chamber.

Minds are pretty much made up on who’s at fault for the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict; among members of the news media, among members of the public, among the various NGO’s who view the conflict as their concern, and among the myriad political and religious organizations who claim skin in the game.

Why repeat all those arguments and positions here? Instead, let’s keep to a minimum the usual barrage of links to news and analysis pieces I provide to bolster my points. There’s too many to cite, anyway, and -- the truth is -- picking journalistic winners and losers is largely a function of which side in the conflict you identify with.

I've been scouring the web for pieces that reflect as many viewpoints as I can find, but my conclusions about the coverage merely reflect my own bias.

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Religion News Service offers readers one half of the 'Why did God smite Houston?' story

Religion News Service offers readers one half of the 'Why did God smite Houston?' story

I got a telephone call yesterday from an Anglican who has had lots of experience dealing with mainstream reporters in the past decade or two. He may or may not call himself an "evangelical," because he's an intellectual who uses theological terms with great precision.

This priest had an interesting question, one linked to press coverage of Donald Trump, but actually quite bigger than that. The question: Are American journalists intentionally trying to avoid discussions of the complex divisions inside evangelical Protestantism?

Yes, what punched his frustration button was the "80-plus percent of white evangelicals just love Trump" mantra in press coverage. That ignores the painful four-way split among evangelicals caused by the Hillary Clinton vs. The Donald showdown. That would be (1) evangelicals who do love Trump no matter what, (2) those who cast agonizing votes for him as a last resort, (3) those who went third party and (4) those on the left who voted for Clinton.

Now, he said, there is another option between (2) and (3). There are evangelicals who voted for Trump and now regret it. Call them the President Pence in 2017 camp.

However, when one looks at elite media coverage, it seems that no one (other than a few Godbeat pros) realize that the evangelical world is not a monolith.

Want to see another example of this syndrome? Check out the Religion News Service story with this headline: "Where are the condemnations of Harvey as God’s punishment?" Here is the overture:

(RNS) When Superstorm Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area in 2012, the floodwaters in Lower Manhattan were still rising when some pastors pointed out what, to them, was obvious.
“God is systematically destroying America,” the Rev. John McTernan, a conservative Christian pastor who runs a ministry called USA Prophecy, said in a post-Sandy blog entry that has since been removed. The reason God was so peeved, he claimed, was “the homosexual agenda.”
McTernan belongs to a subset of religious conservatives -- including some well-known names -- who see wrath and retribution in natural disasters. Usually, their logic revolves around LGBT themes. ...

Yes, friends and neighbors, we are headed into Pat Robertson territory again.

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The Atlantic comes oh so close to examining the painful Trump divide among evangelicals today

The Atlantic comes oh so close to examining the painful Trump divide among evangelicals today

Yes, I am using the Master and Commander weevils video clip, once again.

Why? I still think if offers a cheerful take on the bitter, agonizing, real-life decisions that many religious conservatives have had to make while coping with the rise of Donald Trump.

I bring this up because of a new essay in The Atlantic that, for a moment, I thought was going to dig into the mainstream-press obsession with the 80 percent of white evangelicals "just love" Trump thing. Of course, if you have been reading evangelical publications over the last year or so -- such as World and (here we go again) Christianity Today -- you know the reality is more complex than that.

The Atlantic headline, on another must-read essay by Emma Green, proclaims: "Evangelicals Are Bitterly Split Over Advising Trump."

The hole in the story is suggested in the headline. This piece is really about the behind-the-scenes debates about the work of Trump's evangelical advisory group. Yes, evangelicals are debating the wisdom of old-guard evangelicals standing up for this president, no matter what he says or does. But the larger issue is that many evangelicals, including many who voted for the man, remain divided over whether he is qualified to be president or to remain as president.

So why are Jerry Falwell, Jr., and the Rev. Robert Jeffress doing that thing that they do? These two Christian conservatives, and others, are given a chance to say what they have to say. Then there is this crucial summary:

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